Victoria University Press, $30.00,
A curious rumour about this new novel by Patrick Evans preceded its publication. The rumour was that Evans had done something exceptionally good and it came from people one didn’t expect to be in his favour. Evans’s most noted critical intervention in recent times was the essay ‘”Spectacular Babies”, which accused Bill Manhire’s creative writing programme at Victoria University of producing literary versions of McDonalds hamburgers. Yet the book was coming out from Victoria University Press, and the babies didn’t seem to be squawking.
I was sceptical, having read one of his earlier novels, Making It (1989), and struggled to expel from consciousness the conversation it contains between the central character and his penis. I also found his recent critical study of New Zealand literature, The Long Forgetting, overburdened with postcolonial remorse and expected this fictional revisitation of the literary 50s to be dulled by familiar academic pieties.
Well, I was wrong. Perhaps Evans truly ventriloquised Sargeson in the writing of this book, as Manhire suggests on the back cover. Perhaps those forgotten earlier novels deserve reconsideration. Or maybe this is simply the one first-rate novel we are all supposed to contain. Whatever the explanation, Gifted is a splendid fictional recuperation of a familiar past made both convincing and strange. More than just a cleverly executed re-enactment, Gifted conjures the tiny literary circle of 1950s Auckland into vivid life, gives it a beguiling voice, and allows us to visit a world that taught us to imagine the nation. Gifted is also an exercise in literary history, dramatising the crucial stylistic shift that occurred between The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951) and Owls Do Cry (1957), and between the Sargeson of the classic realist stories and the sinuous, involved sentences that register complex consciousness in the late novels and autobiographies.
Above all, Gifted is a rich palimpsest of competing tendencies in the development of New Zealand fiction, rather clumsily characterised by Lawrence Jones’s metaphor of barbed wire and mirrors, which I prefer to think of by way of an older distinction between richness and reality. Consider this passage:
Anyway, that is how we handled the occasion, with me showing no offence and Janet telling me her friend Molly had bought her the iron as part of a campaign to help her settle down and find her feet and that the only reason she had accepted it was that it was supposed to be a travelling iron. Just as she liked shop signs she always enjoyed those wonderfully rich and empty phrases people use in their everyday lives, and gave them a special arch emphasis whenever she used them.
The fluency of the writing here conceals the complexity of voices tucked within each other. Sargeson’s easy colloquial voice in the first sentence, inviting the reader into the story by that “Anyway”, recalls those narrators of the early stories. The next sentence uses phrasing they would never employ because it distances the speaker from the ordinary world: “those wonderfully rich and empty phrases people use in their everyday lives”. The first sentence has the characteristic paratactic structure of classic Sargeson; the second has a finely balanced opening clause and educated speech – “arch emphasis” – of the later work.
Evans also manages here to pull off a remarkably difficult fictional task: he dramatises an act of literary instruction. In a sense the novel recapitulates Evans’s own efforts over nearly 40 years not only to breach the walls of biographical defence thrown up by the author and her protectors but also to unpack the complex codes of linguistic meaning in her often recalcitrant works (“I could still make no sense of her … but at least I was starting to think there might be some sense to be made”). In the reference above to the travelling iron, Sargeson has noticed a key trick of Frame’s where she seizes on the oddness in an ordinary phrase, gives it an Edward Learlike emphasis or raises an eyebrow and thus situates the artist not within that speech but as an observer, adding complexity and richness by drawing out the strangeness. This will become part of her general critique of social reality by way of those semantically “rich” yet “empty” linguistic habits that give away so much. In this moment everyday reality and verbal complexity cohabit amicably.
Harry Levin described James Joyce as proceeding as an artist “from insular reality to cosmopolitan richness”. Where a national reality seems to lack complexity, the novelist faces a dilemma in reflecting it in stylistically rich terms. Sargeson faced this problem, just as Joyce and Mansfield had before him. Their solution was to flee the small world for the larger one, yet return continually in what they wrote to what they had left behind, while finding more complex ways of registering it. Sargeson also made his pilgrimage to Europe to imbibe the full wealth of a great literary tradition. But he returned and proclaimed that a writing style adequate to the local world must reflect its limitations.
How did Sargeson (and Allen Curnow) make such signal breaks in the late 1950s from the stylistic limitations of cultural nationalism? For John Newton, the source of the increasing complexity of later Curnow comes from outside the nation: from the German immigrants in the 1930s and ‘40s who intrigued the literary locals and tempted them with a modernist outlook. Newton is listed among the dedicatees for this book, but I read Evans’s take on the shift differently. He leaves out the visitors from elsewhere, focusing on composite versions of recognisably local talents. The crucial interaction is between Sargeson and Frame, and we see the older writer, initially certain of his authority as mentor, observing something extraordinary in the younger one and learning from her baffling but enticing use of language. In other words that increase in complexity in the writing style has been achieved in large part by resources latent in the immediate world.
This seems to me right. The problem with seeing the visitors from elsewhere as an inseminating presence engendering modernism, is that one fails to attend to the local processes by which richness and reality worked out their relations in literary form. It is as if the super-intelligent aliens in 2001 A Space Odyssey arrive in a primitive world, laying seeds of transcendence. But what was here was not as barren as all that. Sargeson himself had read his high modernist primer, although failing to apply it successfully to his own work.
Evans’s Sargeson is a slow learner. To him, Frame’s story of the sheep that looked in at her mother is allegorical: sheep represent reality, economic reality. For Frame it is, in a positive sense, fantasy. Words, she observes, are not “little donkeys that go out and bring back a load of facts for us”. So Sargeson must decipher her instructive riddles and learn to tolerate her tendency to collapse verbal and actual realities. His shock at his lodger’s “disappearance” anticipates that of later readers of Frame encountering similarly bizarre events. For Frame the writer controls reality through language. Sargeson is unhinged by this, experiencing the uncanny in a library and finding himself sucked into the weirdness of her world. The word for her condition “schizophrenia” provokes anxiety and paranoia.
But the Sargeson who narrates Gifted has learned from Frame, not that he grants words quite her power over the real. He knows that he writes for “a very select bunch indeed”, one who will recognise a Joycean phrase, “the snotgreen scrotumtightening sea”, without requiring explanation. What is significant is the ease of the quotation, from a writer who reflects that he has become “well, the man who fathered a nation’s fiction”. And, this has liberated his style, so that he can range from the earthiness of Harry Doyle’s speech to Lawrentian celebration of the body to a Lolita moment introduced into an account of a youthful Bible camp.
In Gifted the irreverent Evans offers an act of reverence for the odd couple of New Zealand fiction and produces a book which combines the simplicity and complexity, reality and richness, of both writers. The product of research and invention, the novel is above all a manual on how to read not just the gifted, word-drunk Frame but also her slow-learning mentor who also taught us all a thing or two.
Mark Williams is an associate professor in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.